Thursday, August 20, 2009

You Betcha!

[This was shared during a funeral worship in the sanctuary of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Psalm 23
Isaiah 40:27-31
John 3:16-18
John 11:21-27

I knew Luke for only twenty-two months. But in that time, like countless others here at Saint Matthew, I’ve come to appreciate him and rely on him in more ways than I can catalog.

On Sunday mornings, he was always in the sacristy with my remote microphone at the ready, giving me updates on how much time I had as he listened to the radio monitor.

Whenever there was a funeral here at the church, Luke was here, too, making sure, among other things, that the casket pall was laid out and ready; in fact, he told us a few weeks ago that he hadn’t missed a funeral in Saint Matthew’s sanctuary in twenty-five years!

If we were to have Sunday worship, Advent or Lenten services, Bible studies, Church Council meetings, or some other gathering, Luke made sure that there was heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. He climbed a stepladder every week and posted the hymn numbers.

He maintained the boilers and AC systems in this building.

And if the lights were still on when we left the building, he let us know about it.

This maintenance was all part of Luke’s ministry, one for which he was well suited. Luke had an amazing mind for mechanical things. The other day, Bill recalled that, after years as an auto mechanic, his Dad decided to try for a job at Carborundum. He had to take a test measuring his mechanical aptitude. When Luke turned in his test, he’d made a note beside several of the questions. “These are the answers I know you want,” he said, "but, here are the real answers.”

I’m told that his fascination with how things worked went all the way back to his childhood. When he was about ten, he took his sister’s baby buggy apart and couldn’t get it back together. He rode on an escalator repeatedly until, to his own satisfaction, he’d figured out how it worked.

But, though it may take twenty people to replace Luke for all the things he did here at Saint Matthew, people will miss him most for who he was.

He was the guy who, when asked how he was doing, might replay, “Oh, just staggerin’ along.” Larry and Jim told me the other day that, growing up close to the Mowery Garage, they remember that Luke was always friendly, wearing the same smile he wore on the very last day he was able to speak with me on one of my visits to Grant Hospital. There, as I left, typically, he pointed at me and said, “You take care now.” Butch put it well last night when he said of Luke, “We lost our right hand man.” Luke Mowery was everybody’s right hand man.

Yet if his church family and our community will miss Luke the person—and we will, our loss cannot be compared to that of his family.

And it’s to that loss, Blanche, Bill, Suzanne, and family, that I want to speak.

It was clear to me that Luke was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. To others, he was a great friend. He was a great guy: a person who suffered little in the way of foolishness and one who wasn’t comfortable talking about his faith, but who lived it every day.

And it’s to that faith relationship that, today and in the weeks and months to come, I ask you all to turn once again. I want to do it by commending to you two promises and one image from the Bible. I hope that you can hold onto them and find comfort and hope.

Long ago, to an elderly man who had spent years studying religion, but still didn’t know God, a man named Nicodemus, Jesus said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

If that isn’t true today, it simply isn’t true.

But, in fact, we have evidence for its truth.

We see it in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus died on a cross, taking our punishment for sin, so that death need not be the last word about our lives. He rose to open eternity to all who turn from sin and follow Him.

Jesus’ resurrection underscores the truth of what he said the sister of His friend, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said, “Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

That was Jesus’ promise to Luke. That is Jesus’ promise to you today! That’s the first promise to which I hope you'll cling.

But there’s another promise. Ours isn’t just a sweet by-and-by faith. We have a God Who, through Christ, has shown us that He is willing to go through life with us, in joyful times and sad, when we’re young and when we are old. God isn't afraid to get his uniform dirty!

Psalm 23, which I read a few moments ago, says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Shepherds, in the ancient world, were tough, practical, strong guys. To have one as a friend would be to know that there was always someone who had your back. That's the kind of friend Luke was to people. But the Scriptures says that God is infinitely and eternally such a Friend, such a Shepherd!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd Who has your back today, Who stands with you even as you trudge through the valley of the shadow of death. That’s the second promise I hope will comfort you today: The God we know in Jesus Christ promises to always be with those who call on Him.

And finally, I hope that you’ll keep a Scriptural image in your mind. It comes from another of our Bible readings, Isaiah 40:31: “…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Luke never gave up on living life. He plowed ahead with living and did it with tenacity and good humor, even when he was wracked by terrible pain from the hip issues that hobbled him. He was here in the sacristy on the Sunday before he went for his surgery.

But he was in obvious pain all the time. He had to plan how to get up from a sitting position. It was a struggle for him to get around. He was thankful when someone would save him a few steps by handing him the key he needed to lock up the sound equipment.

But I believe that at the moment he passed from this life, because of his faith in Jesus Christ, Luke passed into the presence of the Savior in Whom He believed. He is no longer hobbled by his hip or subject to the ravages of age. He is running and is not weary; he is walking in total strength.

Three things I ask you to hold onto today:
  • God is with His people now.
  • God gives His people eternity.
  • And God renews those who trust in Him.
Today, I believe that if we ask God if these three things are true, we can, within our spirits, hear all heaven join in God's reply, telling us with a smile and a friendly thump on the back, “You betcha!"*

*I use first names only in the blog version of this sermon. "You betcha!" was one of Luke's trademark phrases.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The God Who Is

This is from the daily emailed inspiration sent by my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, earlier today:

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Thought for the Day

There is a God we want.
There is a God who is.
They are not the same God.

Patrick Morley

Hosea 10:12 NIV

It is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.

Lord, help me to recognize who you are and to seek you.

What Bothers Me Most When I Sin

The thing that bothers me most when I sin, whether my sin is overt rebellion against the will of God or failure to do the good God wants us to do, is how it may hurt the faith of others.

How do I, as a Christian, damage the possibility of others knowing the incredible happiness and power that belong to a follower of Jesus Christ? Long after I've repented for my sins and have been forgiven for them, they leave a mark on those who have observed my hypocrisy.

We're all hypocrites, of course. No one measures up to the fine ideals to which they expect others to live...and which, they think, in self-delusion, they fulfill. That's true of everyone, to some extent--cynic or Christian, Buddhist or democrat.

But I view my hypocrisy as a Christian with special...the only word is, dread. I dread how my ill-chosen words, attempts to be clever, or ill-conceived actions, all of which I've decided to do not because they pleased or honored God or helped others, but because I wanted to be liked, or wanted to please myself, or wanted to elevate my self-esteem at the expense of someone else, have hurt or stopped the development of faith in Christ in those who have watched or heard me.

Today's Our Daily Bread devotion is based on Matthew 15:7-20, where Jesus says, in part:
"You hypocrites! [Jesus was addressing the good Bible-believing people of first century Judea]. Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'"
Jesus goes on to say that what defiles is not the things that go into us. (He's speaking spiritually, not physically or medically here.) What defiles us is what comes out of us: our actions and words, all rooted in our thoughts.

It's these things that show our hypocrisy.

God has been pummeling me with thoughts along these lines over the past two days.

Yesterday, I met in Chillicothe with pastoral colleagues. We gather each month to look ahead at the appointed Bible lessons for the succeeding month, each of us making presentations and leading the discussions of the texts. This month, I was assigned the lessons for September 27, including James 5:13-20, from the Bible's New Testament. There, James urges believers to confess their sins to one another, not in a sick display of reality TV-style narcissism, but as an antidote to our own hypcorisy and as a means of having the healing grace of God's forgiveness pronounced over us by others. James says:
...confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
Here, I don't think that James is speaking only of physical healing, but of the healing of our spirits, the beating back of our sin, the life-giving forgiveness of God.

After all, it's our sin--our hypocrisy, our misuse of others and of the world and of our bodies and minds--that blocks life, true life, from us. It's God's forgiveness, which unleashes God's Spirit in our lives every time we receive it, that gives us life, now and in eternity.

I don't believe that every time we confess our sins in the presence of other Christians, be it during public worship, in conversation with Christian friends, or with a pastor, we need necessarily catalog every sin. Confession in the presence of others is not the same as an appearance on Dr. Phil's show.

But I do value the Confession of Sin and Pronouncement of Absolution that are part of our weekly worship in most Lutheran congregations. There is something humbling and life-giving about all of us standing before the Lord and admitting that we hypocrites, we sinners who pretend--sometimes even to ourselves--that we don't sin, that we really are "in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."

When we confess our sins to God, even in private prayers uttered in our rooms, in the shower, on the way to work, or while walking down the street, God forgives. James says God brings us healing, which I take to be more than simple forgiveness, but also renewed power to fight our inborn tendency toward hypocrisy.

We need that power because, this side of the grave, we have an overpowering impulse toward sin and self-delusion. We can create all sorts of rationalizations for why, ordinarily, we should love God and love neighbor or why, ordinarily, we should care for own bodies and minds or the world in which we live, but that this time is an exeption. It's easy to fall prey to hypocrisy as a Christian--confessing one thing with our lips and living another way.

But forgiveness granted in the Name of Jesus Christ, makes us right with God, right with God in fact, is what the word righteous means. Not perfect. Not flawless. Not without a penchant for hypocrisy. But forgiven and helped by God as an act of grace by God, given to repentant believers in Christ. Righteous.

I don't want to hurt the faith of others who see my hypocrisy. I don't want to be far from the God Who came into our world and died and rose to give us new life. I don't want to be a hypocrite.

I want to be right with God and, in spite of all my many flaws, I want others to see the goodness of God.

God forgive my sins and hypocrisy. Live in me and help me to rely on You alone. Amen!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Are the US and China Headed for Eventual War?

That would be insane!

But, I agree with Niall Ferguson that the two countries are, inevitably, headed for a divorce, the end of what he once called "Chimerica."

Having said that, China's government clearly seems to be moving toward what Ferguson calls "empire building," which could be detrimental to regional stability, the environment, and US interests.

For the future, the US government needs, among other things, to:
  • Decrease its debt to China.
  • Deepen or form strategic partnerships with Asian nations as a means buffering China's hegemonic designs in Asia.
  • Wean itself off of oil, for which China is likely to become an increasingly aggressive competitor.
  • Encourage Americans to save more and mortgage less of their financial well-being to the Chinese.

The Wise Choice

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Proverbs 9:1-6
There's a story* about a man who had developed a test to compare how smart the children in his small town were. Each day he would offer different children a choice between a nickel and a dime. He thought that a "simple" child would take the nickel because a nickel is bigger than a dime. A wise child, he thought, would know that a dime is worth more.

When the man gave his test, every kid in town chose the dime, except one, a little boy. The man saw this child as foolish. So each day, whenever he saw that boy, he would offer him the same choice, and each day the boy chose the nickel. Soon, everyone in town was in on the joke and, knowing about the foolish little boy, they would offer him the same deal. And sure enough, the boy always chose the nickel.

One day the boy’s older cousin visited him from out of town. A man walked up to the two boys and offered them both a choice between a dime and a nickel. The cousin took a dime and the younger boy took a nickel. After the man had walked away, snickering, the cousin asked, “Don’t you know that a dime is worth more than a nickel?” The young boy looked at his older cousin and said, “Sure, I know that a dime is worth more than a nickel. But if I’d take the dime just once, people would stop offering me the choice. Most of the kids in town have gotten a dollar or two in dimes. I’ve made over $200 in nickels!”

There are two paths that we can take in this life—two paths, in fact, through eternity: the wise or the foolish.

Do we know the difference? Some people think they know. But the Bible says that we may not. “Sometimes,” Proverbs 16:25 says, “there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.”

The choice between a wise life and a foolish one is no nickel and dime game. It’s a matter of life and death.

It’s too bad that our first lesson ends where it does. That’s because by reading just a few verses further on, we see that Proverbs 9, from which the lesson comes, presents us with these two alternative ways of life. And sandwiched in between Proverbs’ portraits of the two contrasting choices which you and I make every single day, is one verse that underscores which choice makes sense for us for today and all our tomorrows through eternity.

Just a little background: Proverbs is a book attributed to King Solomon, Israel’s third king. On becoming king, the Bible tells us elsewhere, Solomon asked God for the wisdom he needed to govern. It’s long been believed that the book of Proverbs, a book of practical wisdom, was written by Solomon near the beginning of his reign in 970 BC. The usual pattern of this book is to present one wisdom saying after another, each succeeding one having little or no reference to the one before it.

But our lesson, Proverbs 9:1-6, does something different. It presents a kind of story. As is often true in the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified, made into a character. Usually, I should point out, Wisdom--in fact, I know of no exceptions--is portrayed as a woman. (Men, this should give us pause the next time we feel the impulse to get into an argument with a wife, sister, girlfriend, or mom; we could be wrong!)

Be that as it may, here too, Wisdom is portrayed as a woman. And we’re told that she has built her house on seven pillars. This may be significant in several ways. One is that for God’s Old Testament people, seven was the number of completion or perfection. Secondly, in the everyday ancient world, archeology has shown us, the homes of the wealthiest and most careful people were constructed on foundations of seven pillars. Wisdom then, as portrayed in our lesson, is a careful builder.

Our lesson goes on to say that Wisdom has prepared meat and bread and wine, the meal of wealthy people in ancient times, and she has set her table. But she hasn’t set it for the rich, powerful, or influential. That’s clear from what happens next.

Wisdom perches herself on a high place where people can see and hear her so that everyone can get the invitation to her table. To make doubly sure that everyone knows, she sends out servant girls with the same invitation: “Come, those who are simple, eat of my table, and lay aside your immaturity. Let me feed you on wisdom so that you can grow up and have the insight you need to live life.”

Now, just a few verses beyond our lesson, in Proverbs 9:13-18, you can read about another woman, with another invitation. She’s foolish, ignorant. She offers water she claims to be sweet because it’s stolen and bread she says is pleasant because it’s shared in secret. The guests who go to her table don’t realize that death is there. She offers quick and easy pleasures that don't last.

Wisdom is the way of following the God we know in Jesus Christ. Foolishness is following all those other voices that prompt us to look out for ourselves and get what we want when we can. There are lots of times when foolishness can seem like the wisest course.

The businessman who cuts corners, using inferior materials in order to make the lowest bid thinks he’s being wise.

The atheist who thinks that by denying the transformed lives seen in those who genuinely follow Jesus Christ, he’s asserting control over his own destiny and being wise.

The young person who ignores God’s will that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman thinks that he or she is beating the system and being wise.

The girl who copies from the test of the smart kid at the next desk thinks she’s being wise.

And it’s possible that many, even most, of the people who heed the invitation of foolishness instead of wisdom will get away with their choices. The businessman may become wealthy. The atheist may have a long life in which he achieves all his aspirations. The young person may avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or the obligations that go with bringing a child into the world. The girl who swipes the test answers may get her cheat-cheapened diploma.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that foolishness, for all its short-term gains, is the way of death. Foolishness pays no dividends beyond the grave.

The way of wisdom, of following Jesus Christ, isn’t easy. Let’s be clear about that. "When Christ calls a man," the martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "he bids him come and die." The world sees that as foolishness. In 1 Corinthians in the New Testament, the first-century preacher Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It’s hard to follow a Savior Who wants to crucify our old selves, with all their arrogance and self-service, so that our new selves can rise and live with God forever. Wisdom entails admitting our selfishness, admitting our need of a Savior, admitting our need of help.

But over the long haul, in a life of God-given peace and in life forever with God, wisdom has it all over foolishness. When we choose the wise path in life, the path of following Christ, we don’t have to have long memories. We don’t have to remember what lies we told to whom. We need to create no cover-ups for following the course of wisdom.

One great thing about the wisdom that comes from God is that we never get too old or hardened by sin to hear or heed it. I once met an elderly man who had done one rotten thing after another in his life. He had no use for God. Fortunately for him, he came into contact with a young man who was on fire for Jesus Christ. Little more than a year before that elderly man died, he made a public confession of his faith in a Lutheran congregation. He’d realized how foolish he had been. His life was changed forever.

Another great thing about God’s wisdom is that we’re never too young to need it or to benefit from it. A young man was brought to my former parish in Cincinnati by his wife. She thought it was time that they get with a church. He was a nice fellow, but he wasn’t that interested in Christ or the Church. But, as is often the case, something happened within the fellowship of the congregation. He became intrigued by Christ, interested in the ways in which he saw Christ affecting people’s lives. He got involved with a Bible study. He became a leader of the church. I was sad when I learned that he had gotten a job in another city. We both choked up the day he said goodbye. But today, that young man is both a successful businessperson and a deeply committed follower of Christ, involved with his new church. What if he had waited to get serious about Christ? He would have, at the least, gone through years without the wisdom, grace, and goodness of God guiding him and sustaining him through his life.

Remember earlier, when I said that in between the stories of Wisdom and Foolishness in Proverbs 9, there is a verse that underscores the wise choice for us to make for ourselves? It's Proverbs 9:10, which says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."

Back when I was in seminary, an eighty-something year old man used to come and give guest lectures. He had been a professor of systematic theology and years before, while he served an interim pastorate in Springfield, Ohio, had baptized my father. T.A. Kantonen was an eminent theologian who, by the time I met him, had spent his life following Christ. But I was struck by how he often answered questions, "I think this is what God is teaching me..." "This is what I believe right now..." He realized that even for all his years, he was only beginning to understand God, only starting to be steeped in the wisdom of God. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom..."

And how about you and me? How can we begin to be steeped in the wise way of life God offers to us? There is only one way and that's to draw close to God in the flesh, Jesus Christ!

If we really want to live wisely, we need to draw close to Christ every day: through prayer, study of Scripture, fellowship with other believers, and service in Jesus' Name. We need to soak up God's Word and receive the body and blood of our Lord every time they're offered.

God has invited us to feast on His wisdom. Heed that call! Follow Christ today. Eat at His table and walk each day with Him.

That’s the wise choice for all eternity. Amen

*This story was told in a sermon by Pastor Leslie Judge of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.